THE LAST DAYS OF DOGTOWN

By Anita Diamant

Scribner. 263 pp. $25

In one of his short stories, Richard Ford wrote that we do not remember the past; we only imagine it. For no contemporary novelist is this truer than for Anita Diamant, whose latest book is set in the early 19th century on Cape Ann, a stony nubbin of Massachusetts coastline that, according to an old local joke, was "the last place that God created, since it was where He dumped all the rocks that were of no use elsewhere." Diamant's new novel is not, as its publisher claims, a work of historical fiction. More accurately, what she has created -- as she did in her bestselling first novel, The Red Tent -- is the overlay of a modern sensibility on an imagined past.

Dogtown is the derisive name for a once-promising settlement, which by 1814 has been reduced to "a collection of broken huts and hovels inhabited mostly by spinsters and widows without children, and few with so much as an extra spoon in her cupboards." Legends about the place flourish in every barroom in the neighboring towns: It's said that only witches and whores remain there, and that "they dally with their dogs." Diamant's casually episodic plot aims to reveal the real folk behind the Dogtown legends. She tracks the community's disintegration through interlocking vignettes that are punctuated by a series of funerals, while gradually exposing the secret loves and hatreds that bind these stragglers together.

Among those vignettes is the tale of Tammy Younger, a foul-mouthed skinflint universally loathed because of her taste for blackmail and her appalling mistreatment of her orphaned great-nephew. To counter the whispers of witchery that surround this figure, Diamant underscores her frailties. In one scene, Tammy nearly bleeds to death after an unsympathetic acquaintance performs some barbaric dentistry with a wedge and a mallet. Some years later, she's found face-down in a bowl of decomposing stew.

Another tragicomic scene features the drunkard and pimp John Stanwood, who is compelled to mend his ways after he spies what looks like an angel in a tree. Sober, Stanwood proves to be twice as tedious as when he was drunk, and the town sighs with relief when he abandons his religious calling.

Stanwood's partner in prostitution is Mrs. Stanley, an aging ex-beauty who presides imperiously over two miserable trollops. What makes this menage worse than "the saddest excuse for a whorehouse" its customers have ever seen is the tenancy of Mrs. Stanley's 11-year-old grandson, who's forced to work as their house servant.

The settlement's former slaves fare even worse. Cornelius Finson's mother survived the middle passage but died of fever when he was 10. When he was 18, his masters sold their farm and set him free, but "he had no idea what to do with himself or where to go." For 20 years, he takes shelter in one half-wrecked Dogtown house after another, finding work where he can. Black Ruth dresses in men's clothing and works as a stonemason, living "day to day, without thoughts of the future or of her past." Ruth and Cornelius nod to each other on the road, but they never speak. "What would they say to each other after so many years?" Cornelius wonders.

Cornelius's reticence is shared by most of the characters in the book, but Diamant's descriptive passages are as eloquent as a Congregationalist hymn ("the surf on distant boulders like a muffled knock on an enormous door"), and her theme -- that life teems even as it dwindles -- has all the more power for its subtle, unsentimental articulation. It is, in fact, the lack of sentimentality that betrays the novel's modernity. The period details all seem correctly placed: a scrap of gingham here, a wooden ladle there. Yet Diamant, who based her book on a local pamphlet and a sketchy collection of "ancient gossip and hearsay," makes no attempt to mask the contemporary sensibility that has set this story in motion. The vigorous feminism that galloped through The Red Tent is more subdued here, but it is unmistakably present.

In The Red Tent Diamant used a gaudy, Technicolor style to engineer her Old Testament visions of sex and violence, while The Last Days of Dogtown is as plain as sunlight on polished wood. But in both books, she has managed to find an appropriate (if not a true) vocabulary to conjure up a world. Like Las Vegas reproductions of old Venice or ancient Egypt, these novels are proudly inauthentic yet still entirely original. *

Donna Rifkind is a regular contributor to Book World.